On Wednesday a group of thugs broke into the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and brutally massacred 12 people, including cartoonists, journalists and security officers.
It was an attack on free speech. It was an attack on civilized society. And it was an attack on a brave publication full of cartoonists who all too often have had to deal with threats, ridicule and anger.
Back in 2011, Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed and destroyed after the magazine named the prophet Mohammed as its “editor in chief,” featuring him on the cover in a cartoon saying, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.”
How did the magazine respond? With a new issue sporting a cover drawn by French cartoonist Luz that featured a bearded Muslim kissing a cartoonist with the headline “L’Amour plus fort que la haine” — “Love is stronger than hate.”
I spoke briefly with Charlie Hebdo’s editor, cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier (who published under the pen name “Charb”) nearly a year after the firebombing, when a man was arrested after threatening to decapitate him. What impressed me then and sticks with me through this terrible tragedy is his absolute unwavering defense of making fun of Islamic radicals.
Charb’s intent wasn’t to insult Islam but instead to scrutinize it in the same way that all religions and politicians sometimes deserve. If he could feature Pope Benedict in an amorous embrace with a Vatican guard, why was making fun of Muslims off limits?
“Mohammed isn’t sacred to me. I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law,” he later told the AP.
Just this week, Charb drew a cartoon observing that there haven’t been any terrorist attacks in France. The cartoon featured an armed jihadist twisting a famous French phrase to say, “Wait!… one has until the end of January to present one’s season’s greetings.”
Charb, and fellow French cartoonists Jean Cabut (who went by the pen name “Cabu”), Bernard Verlhac (who signed his work “Tignous”) and Georges Wolinski, were among those tragically killed in Wednesday’s barbarous assault.
So far, 12 people have been reported dead, including a security officer who reportedly pleaded for his life before being shot at close range by the fleeing suspects.
The dead were all brilliant. All brave. All defiant. Now victims in a senseless act of war against journalism and the freedom of expression.
I wish I could call many newspapers today brave, but as I went through the coverage by the New York Daily News and the Telegraph, I saw file photos of a defiant Charb holding up copies of Charlie Hebdo with the cartoons censored and blurred out. Not only are you failing to honor the work of fallen journalists, you’re doing the bidding of the very terrorists that want to dictate what can and can’t be covered.
“More freedom of expression and not less demonstrates courage in the face of attacks,” the Association of American Editorial Cartoonist said in a statement. “Shrinking from a newspaper’s watchdog role only encourages more terror.”
The brave cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo gave their lives to advance the freedom of expression, and they paid the ultimate price to defend the ability of all cartoonists to make fun of anyone.
The power of cartoons are undeniable, and as someone who’s received threats, I can I understand why they’re so scary to powerful, small-minded radicals.
I just wish they’d get a sense of humor.
Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow him on Twitter @RobTornoe.